Keeping pipes from freezing thawing them if they do


January 29, 1994|By Gene Austin | Gene Austin,Knight-Ridder News Service

Keeping water pipes from freezing in winter -- and thawing them out if there is a freezeup -- are tricky problems for many homeowners.

Frozen pipes are especially common in older homes, where pipes sometimes run through unheated areas such as crawl spaces, are close to cold exterior walls, or are inside poorly insulated walls.

The best and safest way to protect pipes in very vulnerable locations, such as pipes serving outside faucets, is to drain them water until warmer weather arrives. All outside faucets should have a valve inside the house where water to the faucet can be shut off; the faucet itself should be left open.

If an outside source of water is wanted in winter, a "freeze-proof" outdoor faucet can be installed.

These faucets have a long stem that penetrates the house wall and actually shuts off the water inside the house, where water is less likely to freeze.

Another treatment for vulnerable pipes is an electric heat cable, generally called heat tape. Heat tape is wrapped around the pipe, then covered with insulation to keep the heat from escaping.

Heat tapes are expensive ($32 for 18 feet at one home center) and can be a fire hazard if not properly installed and regularly checked. Plug- in heat tapes are available for do-it-yourself installation.

If a heat tape is used, make sure the tape has a UL label and follow installation directions exactly. The best of these tapes have built-in thermostatic control so electric current is used only at below-freezing temperature.

Some other tips for keeping pipes from freezing:

* Use pipe insulation. Slip-on pipe insulation, usually made of elastic foam, can help protect pipes that run near cold walls or are located in poorly heated areas. Pipe insulation is sold at many home centers and hardware stores, is easy to install and can be cut with ordinary scissors. Be sure to insulate fittings, such as unions or valves, as well as the pipes. To insulate a fitting, cut short lengths of the foam sleeve and tape them around the fitting with electrical tape. Pipe insulation gives some protection, but will not prevent freezeups in very cold weather.

* Keep water moving. Letting water run from one or more faucets at a slow trickle can help prevent a freezeup during extremely cold weather, since moving water won't freeze as quickly as standing water.

* Use lights as mini-heaters. Very vulnerable indoor pipes, such as the area where a pump or water meter is located, can be given some protection by hanging an incandescent electric lightbulb near the pipes. In general, the higher the wattage of the bulb, the more heat produced. Be sure to keep lightbulbs away from any flammable materials.

* Check windows. If pipes in basements run near windows, check windows to be sure no gaps let cold air enter and freeze the pipes. Caulk any cracks and install plastic inside storm windows if necessary to help protect the pipes. Inexpensive storm windows of sheet plastic are sold at some home centers and hardware stores.

If the water in a pipe does freeze, the freezeup will reveal itself if water doesn't run freely from the faucet or faucets served by the pipe.

Do-it-yourself thawing of pipes can be hazardous unless properly done. Thawing is especially dangerous if a high-heat source such as a blowtorch is used, since steam can be generated that can rupture the pipe and possibly cause personal injury. For these reasons, I recommend calling a plumber to handle thawing of frozen pipes.

Since some do-it-yourselfers might try emergency thawing despite the perils, here are some tips to improve safety:

* Use a heat gun or gun-type hair dryer on the low setting for thawing, but only if the work area is dry. If the work area is wet, there is danger of electrical shock from power tools.

* Wear goggles and gloves when thawing and keep a fire extinguisher nearby. Be alert for possible fire hazards, since many water pipes run close to dry wood.

* Open the faucet connected to the frozen pipe to relieve pressure on the pipe and provide an outlet for steam. Apply heat to the faucet first and work slowly from the faucet to the pipe. When the ice blockage melts, the faucet will flow freely.

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